After reading Chris Gray's review of the last Glen Campbell show here in Houston back in September at the Stafford Centre, I was expecting the worst at Campbell's Friday night show at the Arena Theatre.
The country legend had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few months before the Stafford show, and had set out on a tour, complete with a brand new album of morose "end of the road" numbers, with his children as part of his backing band. Gray's review suitably conveyed the uncomfortable moments of watching a man whose memory was slowly deteriorating struggling through a live show, all the while still showing copious glimmers of the wit and musicianship he had displayed for decades.
I walked into the Arena Theatre on Friday night cringing, feeling like I was going to a somber going-away party, and also confused at how Campbell was back in town so quick, and still on a farewell tour at that. But nonetheless, I wanted to see Campbell one last time before he retreated into that sunset.
Campbell wasn't completely off his game, and he wasn't making mistakes at every turn. The whole evening reminding me spending an extended period of time with any elderly relative. My own grandmother sometimes forgets my name, and I have been in the family nearly thirty years. My great-grandmother's second husband had Alzheimer's late in his life and once engaged me in a conversation about my wife - my mother - and my newborn son - myself - so I have been around enough senior moments not to be bothered.
Imagine a radio antenna, tuning in and out of a station here and there. Maybe you get a good two or three minutes of a broadcast before it fades out for a bit, only to return clear and crisp. That was Friday night.
There were teleprompter screens onstage to assist Campbell on his songs, giving the evening a family reunion karaoke vibe. Sometimes he would laugh at the lyrics, as if they he couldn't believe that he had to sing the next verse. Before you scoff, remember that even Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford use prompters at this point, and those guys haven't gone public within any mental deficiency.
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Opening with "Gentle On My Mind", Campbell was immediately met with a procession of autograph seekers near the lip of the Arena's revolving stage, distracting the man from his playing and singing, but he didn't seem bothered by the intrusions, though the venue's staff looked agitated. Was this a concert or a meet-and-greet that just happened to feature live music? Anyone who frequents the venue is used to seeing this and I think it's disrespectful quite honestly.
Campbell seemed to look to his daughter Ashley, on keys and banjo, for most of the show for assurance, and the revolving stage proved to be a novelty for him, walking against it to get closer to the crowd.
An aside like ""Grow your own kids. You don't have to pay them much," brought the biggest laughter of the night. Campbell continuing to tour as his condition gets further entrenched may make some people cry exploitation, but asides like that proved that he's not checked out yet, and some would say he's being forced up there for financial gain, but I think that if his heart is still in the mix, than he should play as long as he wants.
He joked himself about that saying at one point "They just work me to death," he didn't seem to be in any distress, and I believe that even Campbell himself has a sense of humor about his condition, fighting the seriousness of the matter with levity. You either do that or you let pity and anger swallow you up, doing your loved ones a disservice in the process.
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At the end of the day, I'm still trying to critique a live show from a man with Alzheimer's and it feels uncomfortable to try to be clinical about it. Yes, he stumbled through songs at times and his guitar playing was sporadic, but when he hit solos, he still shined, as if the condition hadn't hit that part of his brain yet. Muscle memory, and the fog lifting as fingers touched strings and frets.
The proceedings reminded me of driving to Winnie to see Chuck Berry about a year ago at Nutty Jerry's. Berry didn't hit every note correctly, but I was still seeing Berry onstage, recording a memory that will one day be passed down to my children.
The material from last year's wave goodbye Ghost On The Canvas didn't hit me nearly as hard in the heart as did his take on Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress". The Canvas stuff live, like the title track and "It's Your Amazing Grace", and set closer "A Better Place" are self-written epitaphs that I am still not ready to take in I guess, not with the man standing feet away from me at least.
Living funerals aren't fun, even if they are for the living and the deceased to commune one last time. I only hope that this round of touring soothes Campbell, his family, and gives his legions of fans closure to a long and prosperous career.